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U.S. Copyright Office Guide on Common Copyright Issues for Librarians

Patron Questions

This page contains resources to help librarians answer common questions that members of the public ask. Topics covered include copyright definitions, different ways works are distributed, the public domain, and fair use.

Tutorial Videos

The following short tutorial videos are available from the Library of Congress YouTube channel. The gallery below provides quick links to many of the resources included on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers


Title 17, Section 101 is dedicated to defining relevant terms and can be a great starting point.

What is a copyrightable work?

What is the relationship between plagiarism and copyright?

Plagiarism is a system of ethics that establishes rules and norms for using someone else's work, such as giving credit. It is enforced by a community.

Copyright, on the other hand, is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of original works of authorship. Authors have a bundle of six exclusive rights over their works and can grant permission to others. Additionally, many uses are permitted under the copyright law's exceptions and limitations. For background information, visit the Copyright Office's website.

While plagiarism and copyright both involve copying, one shouldn't be confused with the other. Providing credit might help avoid claims of plagiarism, but it might not prevent a court from finding that the use is infringing. And when a use is lawful (for example, it's a fair use), it still might be plagiarism without proper attribution.

When is a work published?

What is a public performance or public display?

What is the difference between a literary work and a dramatic work?

What is the first sale doctrine?

The first sale doctrine allows an owner of a lawfully made physical copy of a work to sell, rent, lend, or otherwise dispose of that particular physical copy of the work. It also allows the owner of that lawfully made physical copy to display the copy publicly in certain situations.

There are limitations on the first sale doctrine for computer programs and sound recordings of musical works.

Can I still call myself an author if I sell my copyrights?

Yes, the author of a work is established at the time the work is created and does not change with ownership. Generally, the author is the person who created a work, except in the case of a work made for hire. When a work is a work made for hire the author of the work is the employer of the person who created the work or the party that commissioned the work.

Authorship and Copyright Ownership

The author of a work is the initial owner of the copyright in the work. In most cases, the author and owner is the person who created the work. But in certain situations the author and owner may not be the person who actually created the work. The copyright law provides a provision for "works made for hire." When a work meets the legal requirements of a work made for hire, the author and owner is the employer of the person who created the work or the party who commissioned the work.

Copyright may also be transferred in a written agreement or by an operation of law. An owner may transfer their copyright interest to another party or the ownership may change when certain legal events take place.

This section will provide resources for common issues related to copyright ownership.

How can I find out who has the copyright to something? How do I know if a copyright was renewed?

You may find information about the authorship and ownership of a work, along with other facts related to the work, in the Copyright Office's registration and recordation records. Keep in mind that registration and recordation are voluntary services, and not all works are registered or recorded with the Copyright Office. The below resources give information related to searching Copyright Office records.  If the work you are looking for was never registered or recorded with the Copyright Office you may also need to search sources outside of the Copyright Office.

How can I register a work?

The United States Copyright Office is the agency responsible for administering the nation's copyright registration system. Registration is voluntary but provides many benefits. The resources below explain the benefits and the procedures for registering a work with the Copyright Office.

What rights do I have as a copyright owner?

Who owns the rights to an email?

Who owns the rights to a character?

Who owns the rights to something you commission?

Derivative Works

What is a derivative work? 

Authors have the exclusive right to create derivative works, which are works based on their preexisting copyrighted work(s).

Do I own the copyright in a work that I created based on another work?

Do I need permission to sell a photo I took of a copyrighted statue or building?

Can I change content to make it more accessible?

Do I need permission to translate someone else's work?

A translation is a type of derivative work, and it is the exclusive right of the copyright owner to make or authorize derivative works. It is a rendering of a work of authorship from one language into another, such as a work that has been translated from English into Spanish.

Reproduction & Distribution

What can I do with things I find online? 

Can I post a picture of a work I want to sell online?

It depends on whether or not you are the author of the work. If you are the author, you have the exclusive right to display an image of the work publicly. If you are not the author, consider if this is a fair use.

When can I use clip art?

Can I scan copyrighted materials legally obtained to get rid of the physical copy?

Can I convert media to a different format?

Generally, no. There are some exceptions and limitations for libraries and archives.

Can I play music in a theater or other public place?

Authors have the exclusive right to perform a work publicly, so generally you need to obtain permission or license.

Can I cover someone else's song?

Public Domain

What is the public domain?

Are government works in the public domain?

Copyright protection under the Copyright Act is not available for "any work of the United States Government."

Is everything on a U.S. government website in the public domain?

Works created by the federal government are not protected by copyright, but the federal government may own or license copyrighted works. For example, the government uses photographs, videos, and other content from other authors through licenses or fair use; those works are not in the public domain.

When do works enter the public domain?

Most works enter the public domain once the term of copyright protection expires. Some works, such as U.S. government works and works that are not sufficiently creative, were never protected by copyright and always exist in the public domain.

What can I do with works in the public domain?

The public domain includes creative works that are no longer protected by copyright law, so anyone can use the work without obtaining prior permission. For example, you may make copies of full books in the public domain, display them publicly, perform them, and distribute copies of them. You cannot, however, register a copyright for yourself as the author of a work in the public domain.

It is also important to keep in mind that while a work may be in the public domain, it may contain other works that are still protected by copyright. There may also exist a new work based on the public domain work that is protected by copyright. When considering public domain works, be sure you are using only the original work that is in the public domain.

Fair Use

What is fair use?

A fair use is not an infringement of copyright. A finding of fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis and requires balancing the four factors:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

What counts as educational?

Are there exemptions for religious groups?

Anyone may rely on fair use, considering the four factors, but other exceptions and limitations outside of fair use specifically apply to allowable uses of certain works of a religious nature.

How much can I quote from a copyrighted work? What if I give attribution?

There is no set or predetermined amount that constitutes fair use. Also, providing attribution may not necessarily support a finding that a use is fair.

When is a parody considered fair use?

Written Resources for Patron Questions